The Devil's Horn: The Story of the Saxophone, from Noisy Novelty to King of Coolby Michael Segell
In The Devil's Horn, Michael Segell traces the 160-year history of the saxophone-a horn that created a sound never before heard in nature, and that from the moment it debuted has aroused both positive and negative passions among all who hear it. The saxophone has insinuated itself into virtually every musical idiom that has come along since its birth as well/i>
In The Devil's Horn, Michael Segell traces the 160-year history of the saxophone-a horn that created a sound never before heard in nature, and that from the moment it debuted has aroused both positive and negative passions among all who hear it. The saxophone has insinuated itself into virtually every musical idiom that has come along since its birth as well as into music with traditions thousands of years old. But it has also been controversial, viewed as a symbol of decadence, immorality and lasciviousness: it was banned in Japan, saxophonists have been sent to Siberian lockdown by Communist officials, and a pope even indicted it.
Segell outlines the saxophone's fascinating history while he highlights many of its legendary players, including Benny Carter, Illinois Jacquet, Sonny Rollins, Lee Konitz, Phil Woods, Branford Marsalis, and Michael Brecker. The Devil's Horn explores the saxophone's intersections with social movement and change, the innovative acoustical science behind the instrument, its struggles in the world of "legit" music, and the mystical properties that seduce all who fall under its influence. Colorful, evocative, and richly informed, The Devil's Horn is an ingenious portrait of one of the most popular instruments in the world.
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 6.20(w) x 9.26(h) x 1.26(d)
Read an Excerpt
The Devil's Horn
1. THE GHOST CHILD
He was known as Le petit Sax, le revenant (the ghost-child) to the citizens of his village, Dinant, in Belgium. After one of his many nearly fatal accidents, his mother lamented, “The child is doomed to suffer; he won’t live.” Almost before he could walk, little Adolphe Sax, christened Antoine Joseph in 1814, was fascinated with the alchemical magic performed every day in his father’s workshop, where the most elemental materials were recombined into the finest brass, which was in turn fashioned into an exquisite musical instrument. Although Charles Joseph Sax, who had been appointed Belgium’s chief instrument maker by William I of Orange, was eager to pass on his skills to his firstborn son, agents of misfortune conspired relentlessly to remove the boy from the land of the living. When he was two Adolphe fell down a flight of stairs, smashed his head on a rock, and lay comatose for a week. A year later, toddling around his father’s atelier, he mistook sulfate of zinc for milk, gulped it down, and nearly expired. Subsequent poisonings involved white lead, copper oxide, and arsenic. He swallowed a needle, burned himself severely on a stove, and was badly scorched again by exploding gunpowder, which blew him across the workshop floor. He was again rendered comatose by a heavy slate tile that dislodged from a roof and landed on his head. When he was ten, a villager happened to spot the drowning lad when, after falling into a river, he was eddying, facedown and unconscious, in a whirlpool above a miller’s gate. The villager just managed to pluck him from the water. Before he entered adolescence, his head was scarred by the repeated blows, and one side of his body was badly disfigured by burns.
But his misadventures proved instructive, hardening him for the nasty battles that would plague him as he tried to launch an ingenious musical invention, a serpentine horn whose provenance he secured by naming it after himself. From the moment his lips first touched his saxophone prototype, Adolphe Sax would face a juggernaut of slander, theft, litigation, forced bankruptcies, and attempts on his life that tried to suppress his new sound, a sound never before heard in nature, a sound that promised to change the timbre and soul of music wherever it was played.
By 1842, the twenty-eight-year-old Adolphe Sax was widely recognized as one of the world’s top acoustical craftsmen. Far more skilled and ambitious than his brilliant father, he set out on a late-winter day from Brussels for Paris, then the musical-instrument manufacturing center of the world. In addition to his personal belongings, he carried with him an enormous brass horn, almost as tall as he, that he had fabricated in his father’s workshop, where he had thrived after surviving his calamitous childhood. It was the most recent creation of his already remarkable career. At fifteen he had fabricated a clarinet and two flutes from ivory, considered exquisite specimens by judges at the 1830 Brussels Industrial Exposition. Before he was twenty he had created a new fingering system on the soprano clarinet and reinvented the bass clarinet, transforming the unreliable and mostly unplayable instrument into a regal, elegant woodwind that provided a rich bottom to any instrumental configuration and, remarkably, played in tune. The newly rehabilitated instrument had quickly been adopted as a standard member of the woodwind group and its inventor acknowledged as an engineer of great promise in the musical capitals of Europe.
Despite his success, Sax was feeling grossly maligned and unappreciated. For several years the judges of the Belgian national exhibition had refused to grant him the first prize for his innovations, reasoning that though the precocious designer may have deserved them, were he to receive the exhibition’s highest honors at such a young age, he would have nothing else to aspire to. The year before, in 1841, Sax had prepared to submit for review his new bass horn, the as-yet-unnamed saxophone, the first in a proposed family of seven that would reconfigure the sonic organization of military and symphonic orchestras. After glimpsing the instrument—a brass-and-reed hybrid that joined the body of an ophicleide, a sinuous conical horn, with a clarinet-style mouthpiece—the first wholly new one to emerge since the clarinet had been invented a hundred years before, a jealous competitor apparently booted it across the floor, damaging it so badly it was unfit for exhibition. Disappointed and disgusted, Sax had packed his belongings, carefully wrapped up his mangled creation, and fled Brussels. When he arrived in Paris he had thirty francs in his pocket.
It was the first of many attempts to suppress this intrusive latecomer, this interloper, which, unlike wind instruments with ancient roots, could trace its lineage only as far as the revolutionary design specifications of a visionary acoustical scientist. Like every subsequent injunction over the next century against the saxophone and its “carnal,” “voluptuous” sound—by heads of state, local police, educators, symphonic conductors, film censors, and a host of other moral arbiters, including the Vatican—it failed.
Brash, arrogant, handsome, with a lush, full beard and bedroom eyes, Adolphe Sax was the embodiment of the fiery nineteenth-century Romantic. Enormously self-confident—“In life there are conquerors and the conquered; I most prefer to be among the first,” he often said—Sax was sure that his invention would have profound and everlasting repercussions for music and its practitioners. A brief trip to Paris in the spring of 1839 had strengthened his conviction; the well-regarded composers François-Antoine Habeneck, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and Jacques Fromental Halévy, to whom he had shown the new bass clarinet and a few of his retooled brass instruments, praised him lavishly during his visit. Sax was convinced he would find a learned and appreciative audience in the salons and conservatories of France and receive the recognition he had been denied in Brussels.
Paris represented a fresh start in other ways, too. As a young man, Sax had shown a remarkable ability to develop enemies. Not long after he reinvented the bass clarinet, a jealous artist at the Brussels Grande Harmonie declared he would quit the orchestra if it adopted the new instrument by the designer, who was also a highly talented musician. Sax challenged him to a musical duel—a strategy he deployed frequently with his critics. In his adopted city of Paris, he decided on a new tack. He invited the composer Hector Berlioz, who wrote a feuilleton for the highbrow Journal des débats, to review his instruments, including the improved clarinets and the prototype for his new bass horn. On June 12, 1842, Berlioz devoted much of his column to Sax, “a man of lucid mind, far-seeing, tenacious, steadfast and skilled beyond words.” He called the new instrument le Saxophon, an eponym the egomaniacal young genius wholly endorsed, and predicted the instrument would “meet with the support of all friends of music.” Attempting to describe the unique effects the horn has on the human ear, Berlioz wrote elsewhere, “It cries, sighs and dreams. It possesses a crescendo and can gradually diminish its sound until it is only an echo of an echo of an echo—until its sound becomes crepuscular.” In another article, he said, “The timbre of the saxophone has something vexing and sad about it in the high register; the low notes to the contrary are of a grandiose nature, one could say pontifical. For works of a mysterious and solemn character, the saxophone is, in my mind, the most beautiful low voice known to this day.”
Other composers echoed the praise, even though they had heard the instrument before it underwent its final refinements. The opera composer Gioacchino Rossini declared that “it produced the finest blending of sound that I have met with.” Claude Lavoix described its “particular color of sadness and resignation.” A couple of months after Sax arrived in Paris, Fromental Halévy exhorted him, “Hurry and finish your new family of instruments and come and succour to the poor composers that are looking for something new and to the public that is demanding it, if not to the world itself.” By 1843, Sax had put the final touches on his first prototype, a B-flat bass with a main body that was still shaped like an ophicleide.
The bombastic Berlioz, perhaps recognizing a kindred spirit in his feisty, irritable new friend, helped promote the instrument in every way he knew how. He scored his Chant Sacre for an ensemble of Sax’s instruments, including the B-flat bass saxophone. In early 1844 the work was performed as Hymne pour les instruments de Sax at the Salle Herz, with Sax playing his bass prototype in what was probably the first public performance of the colossal new instrument. Later that year, Georges Kastner used the saxophone, this time a bass in C, in his biblical opera The Last King of Juda, performed at the Paris Conservatory, its only performance ever.
Sax also wooed French royalty. A conservatory student for much of his youth, Sax could play, and play well, virtually every woodwind and brass instrument. At the Paris Industrial Exhibition in 1844, he kept his invention hidden from view (because it was not yet patented, he was then calling it a contrabass clarinet), quietly revealing it to only a few trusted acquaintances. One of them was Lieutenant General Comte de Rumigny, the king’s aide-de-camp, who arranged a showcase for Sax and a quartet of musicians before King Louis Philippe, Queen Marie Amélie, and two of their sons at court.
Sax envisioned a major role for his new family of instruments in both the symphonic orchestra and military bands. As an acoustical technician and player, he was aware of the tonal disparity between the winds and the strings. In an orchestra, the strings were often overwhelmed by the woodwinds, which in turn were overpowered by the brasses. His saxophone, originally called an ophicleide à bec (that is, an ophicleide with a clarinet-like mouthpiece instead of the customary cup mouthpiece), harmonically fused the traits of all three instrumental groups into one. By joining reed and mouthpiece to the metal tube of the ophicleide, a large, conical brass instrument that was the most widely used bass horn of the day and was the forerunner of the tuba, Sax had created an instrument with the tonal qualities of the woodwinds, the projection of the brasses, and the flexibility of the strings. As a family within an orchestra—Sax envisioned the seven members as ranging from the tiny sopranino to the monstrous contrabass—the saxophones would be able to pass along the melodic line as smoothly as the members of a string quartet or the voices of a choir. (The lowest-sounding pitch on the E-flat contrabass, D-flat, is a third, or four keys, from the lowest pitch on the modern, 88-key piano. The highest-sounding pitch on the E-flat sopranino, A-flat, is an octave and a third, or fifteen keys, below the piano’s top note.) Each horn was designed with the same fingering system, which allowed a musician to play all of them with only slight changes in his embouchure. The saxophones also overblew by a perfect octave, as opposed to the clarinet’s more complicated twelfth. This meant that by pressing an octave key, a musician could play a scale in the first and second octaves using virtually the same fingering. The efficient harmonic design of the instrument permitted vastly simplified notation.
Sax wisely perceived an opportunity to launch the production of his player-friendly new instruments: he would persuade French military officials to include them, as well as brass instruments he had improved, in their regimental bands. In the early nineteenth century, France’s military bands, which refused to hire professional players and were poorly subsidized, were humbled by the proud and noble ensembles of Prussia and Austria. After Poland and Austria repelled the last Ottoman invasion in the late seventeenth century, the victors seized complete sets of instruments from the mehter, the rousing janissary bands that accompanied the campaign songs of the Turkish armies as they strode from one bloody battle to the next. Spicing up their Western instrumentation with the exotic additions—mostly percussion instruments like cymbals and bells, but also the yiragh, a form of oboe, and the bur, a piercing horn—the Europeans formed their own versions of janissary bands, which became famous for their ability to whip fighting regiments into a patriotic froth. The slack French bands, however, suffered poorly in comparison. According to an article in L’Illustration, “Whoever heard an Austrian or Prussian band surely broke into laughter upon hearing a French regimental band.”
Beyond the lassitude of its members, the military orchestra, in Sax’s analysis, suffered from a variety of problems that could be remedied by the introduction of saxophones and reworked and improved brass instruments, most prominently his saxhorns. In addition to making them sound better, Sax designed his saxhorns and the smaller saxotrombas (throughout his life, the possessive Sax attached his name to everything he invented or redesigned) so that a soldier could play one while riding a horse. The horn could be held under the left elbow while the left hand held all four regulation reins. The right hand was free to work the valves; the instrument’s vertical design protected it from the horse’s head.
At the urging of his friend Lieutenant General de Rumigny, Sax sent a long letter to the French war minister in 1844 proposing a reorganization of the country’s military bands. The high-pitched piccolos and clarinets and oboes, and the instruments used to carry the bass lines—the bassoons and ophicleides—were not suited to open-air performances, he argued. They were fair-weather instruments; rain rendered most of them unplayable. And many of the intermediary instruments were lost amid the competing sounds. He suggested a solution: the introduction of his new saxhorns—a family of bugles with piston valves—and, of course, his booming bass saxophones.
Virtually no one connected to the military bands—musicians, instrument makers, conductors, military brass—favored the proposed reforms of the Belgian, whom they regarded as an opportunistic interloper. The cliquish Parisian instrument makers argued loudly against the saxophone, which threatened the way they did business. As the industrial revolution progressed, they relied increasingly on artisans in outlying villages to provide interchangeable parts to be assembled and packaged in Paris. Though a boon to all involved, the process tended to stifle innovation. Advances in design tended to come from bright young upstarts, such as Adolphe Sax, who made all the parts for their own instruments. His saxophone threatened to cut the parts suppliers out of the production chain.
But Sax had developed enough influential friends, most significantly Lieutenant General de Rumigny, to force the naming of a commission to decide the matter. Michele Carafa, the director of the Gymnase de Musique Militaire, which trained most of the army’s musicians, had also proposed reforming the bands, simply by adding more conventional instruments. To decide the matter, the commission, made up of acoustical experts from the army and France’s foremost composers, decided to take the issue to the people. It would hold an outdoor concert, a battle of the bands, and let popular opinion decide.
On April 22 the two rival groups gathered on the Champ de Mars, a drill ground next to the École Militaire (now the gardens surrounding the Eiffel Tower), surrounded by more than 20,000 music-loving Parisians. Both Carafa and Sax had proposed bands of forty-five players, but seven of Sax’s musicians had been bribed not to show up, including the two bass saxophonists. But Sax, who loved a pitched battle and was never so dangerous as when infuriated, strapped two instruments to his side, including, some historians believe, his B-flat bass saxophone. Each band was to play a piece selected by the commission in addition to one of its own choosing. But after the first round had been completed, the crowd erupted, overwhelmingly favoring Sax’s band and demanding more. His ensemble, though 20 percent lighter than the competition, projected its sound throughout the assembled crowd, while the sound Carafa’s group produced faded after only a short distance. The members of the commission agreed that Sax’s new configuration, featuring his bold new and reworked instruments, was far superior to the old.
Sax was the talk of Paris for days. The prospect of reform within the louche and pathetic military bands excited great national pride. In September the commission issued its report: it recommended the inclusion of Sax’s baritone and bass saxophones and his resonant saxhorns. Within months, regimental bands organized according to Sax’s system were winning first prizes in contests. Even proud Prussia asked Sax to undertake a reform of its regimental bands. Sax had finally achieved his consecration.
And the saxophone received a quick launch. The Belgian’s saxhorns were most responsible for his victory on the Champ de Mars, but it was his unusual new instrument with the serpentine shape, elaborate fingerboard, and distinct new sound that went on to capture the public’s imagination. Sax won his patent for the instrument in 1846; his application listed eight members of the family, ranging from “bourdon,” a subcontrabass, to the high soprano “sur aigu” (“above acute”), a piccolo instrument an octave above the soprano.1
By then, the E-flat baritone was the ascendant instrument, and it was quickly adopted into Italian, Spanish, and Hungarian military bands, bringing it instant international exposure. Within just a few years it was deploying its powers of seduction on every continent in the world. Everywhere it landed, it was recognized as the sound of modernity and independence—an instrument that gave voice to the common man, whose creative spirit was being stifled by the depersonalizing forces of the industrial revolution. In almost every new musical idiom that would emerge over the next century and a half, whether bebop, merengue, rhythm and blues, or rock, and even when the instrument was introduced to cultures whose musical traditions had been established for hundreds of years, the saxophone would assert its dominance, romancing and beguiling millions of new players on its way to becoming the most popular woodwind in the world.
For all its brilliance, and despite its almost instantaneous impact on the world’s music, the saxophone was never kind to its creator. After winning a contract from the French military and receiving an infusion of cash from investors, Sax hired and trained a crew and began production of his horns in Paris. Almost immediately his competitors, now facing substantial losses of revenue, formed a coalition, the Association of United Instrument Makers, replete with president, treasurer, and a dues-paying membership, to ensure that Sax spent much of his working day challenging their specious claims in court. They sued him for patent infringement, asserting that his new instrument was a copy of many others. They supported their accusations by producing a saxophone from which they’d erased Sax’s proprietary engravings and serial numbers and on which they’d inscribed their own. In response to the attacks, Sax slightly altered the shape of his instrument, changing it from its original ophicleide shape to the form of the modern saxophone.
His opponents schemed to undermine him financially: after Sax sold stock in his company, they bought much of it and resold it at half the price, hoping to scare away other investors. They even resorted to stirring up jingoistic pride by inflaming the Germans, who were always looking for an excuse to express their hostility toward the French. The instrument makers’ association duped the eminent German producer Wilhelm Wieprecht to challenge Sax regarding the authenticity of his invention. Although he’d never actually seen it, Wieprecht wrote to Sax, he had been persuaded (perhaps a victim of his own pride) that the saxophone was a shameless imitation of his superior bathyphone, a swollen, squawking bass horn that would go on to have a mercifully short life. Both parties, and their outraged supernumeraries, were duly offended by the accusations and both demanded satisfaction.
The issue was settled in Germany just a few months after Sax’s victory on the Champ de Mars. In July 1845 many eminent musicians and composers gathered in Bonn to honor Ludwig van Beethoven, who had died in poverty two decades before. At a kind of high summit meeting in Coblenz, attended by Franz Liszt, the two craftsmen presented their instruments to each other. Sax handed Wieprecht a saxophone and invited him to play. Not only could Wieprecht produce no sound from the horn, he admitted it was a complete mystery to him. The only thing the bathyphone shared with Sax’s invention was its aspiration to gain a seat in the conventional symphonic orchestra, a goal that the saxophone, despite its enormous worldwide popularity, has yet to achieve.
In a measure of the saxophone’s ability to stir controversy—a talent it would reveal repeatedly over the ensuing century—the intrigues worked their way into the highest offices of government. In 1848, when Sax’s benefactor, King Louis Philippe, was deposed, one of the first orders of the new republic was to remove saxophones, as well as all other Sax-built instruments, from military bands. In 1852, when Napoleon III overthrew the Second Republic and seized dictatorial powers, the first law he passed, two days after he took power, restored saxophones to the army’s ensembles.
Meanwhile, the lawsuits brought by the well-funded Association of United Instrument Makers, which fittingly had its offices at 11, rue Serpent, continued to hobble Sax. His enemies deployed covert strategies as well. Sax’s plans and special tools were stolen, his instruments counterfeited, and his employees bribed to abandon his service at crucial points in the production process. A mysterious fire destroyed his workshop. Some of these efforts were less subtle: thanks to a faulty fuse, Sax’s life was spared when a bomb that had been placed under his bed exploded prematurely. He escaped assassination again when a loyal and trusted employee of similar height and build arrived unexpectedly one night at Sax’s house after midnight. Mistaken for his boss, who was not home, the employee was fatally stabbed through the heart.
In 1853 the mysterious good fortune that had repeatedly rescued young Adolphe from the catastrophes of his childhood and blunted the attempts on his life by his enemies again exerted its influence. At the height of his battles with rival instrument makers, a hard, dark spot appeared on Sax’s lower lip. Five years later, the cancerous tumor, which resisted all treatments, had grown to a grotesque size. Eating had become impossible. Sax, fed through a tube, had to decide between surgery, which would leave him hideously disfigured, or slow suffocation. From the medical underworld emerged an Indian doctor, a man formally called Dr. Vries but better known as le docteur noir because of the color of his skin (and, perhaps, his otherworldly associations), who treated him with secret herbal extractions from the subcontinent. Six months after the first treatment, in early 1859, the enormous tumor started to shrink. By the following February it had disappeared completely.
The cancer, legal assaults, and suspicious fires—not to mention the attempts on his life—exhausted him physically and financially. Sax was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1852, 1873, and finally 1877, when he turned over his declining factory to his sons and sold off his collection of nearly 500 rare instruments and handmade tools. By then his protective patents had long since expired and several other manufacturers were producing saxophones.
But the euphonious genie had been set loose upon the world. Its adoption into the military bands of neighboring countries ensured broad exposure; by the mid-1850s the saxophone had made its way to Belgium, England, Italy, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United States, where Henri Wuille demonstrated the instrument, which he called the corno musa (or bagpipe). In 1847, Sax began teaching the instrument at the Gymnase Musical; a few years later, Georges Kastner, a minor composer and friend, wrote a method book for it. Sax commissioned repertoire—slight, light-hearted pieces that showed off the instrument’s versatility, as well as transcriptions of classical pieces from eighteenth-century masters. Composers, at first baffled about how to use it, began including it in new scores.2
Not surprisingly, the bizarre new instrument with the unusual sound and impressive fingerboard architecture attracted some quirky early proponents who quickly capitalized on its potential as a novelty. One was Charles Jean-Baptiste Soualle, who was born in Ares, studied at the Paris Conservatory, where he won a first prize in 1844, and became director of the Marine Musical Troops of Senegal. A clarinetist, Soualle took refuge in England when Louis Philippe was deposed in 1849 (and the decree of 1844 admitting Sax’s instruments to regimental bands was repealed) and studied the saxophone. He made a few adjustments to the instrument—most importantly, he fabricated a single octave key that replaced two separate octave keys, anticipating a design change that would become permanent forty years later. He renamed the modified instrument the turcophone, which reviewers said was capable of producing a sound “soft and suave.” Occasionally, Soualle, a master of self-promotion, called the instrument the zouave.
In 1850, Soualle, a large man with fierce dark eyes, began touring the capitals of Europe with his soprano and alto turcophones, then wandered through Australia, New Zealand, Manila, Java, Canton, Macau, Shanghai, and Calcutta, showing off his mysterious instrument to enchanted listeners, who often attributed spiritual power to it. He settled in Radjah, India, where he converted to Islam and, because of his bewitching abilities on his clever new horns, was named the area’s musical director. Now known as Ali Ben Soualle, the adventurer took his show back on the road—he had written forty compositions for his turcophones—and played to audiences in Isle Morris, Reunion, Cape of Good Hope, and Cape Natal before returning to Mysore, India, where he was awarded the title Chevalier de Mysore. As it had years earlier in Paris, revolution forced him to flee India in 1858; the Muslim turcophonist returned to Paris, where the royal family, headed by Napoleon III, had been reinstated.
Another clarinetist, Edward A. Lefebre, saw an opportunity to capitalize on the novelty instrument. The son of the owner of a musical-instrument store in Holland, Lefebre met Adolphe Sax in Paris, was apparently rendered spellbound by both instrument and inventor, and vowed that he would make it his life’s mission to promote the saxophone’s sound around the world. He traveled to Cape Town in 1859, where he set up a music store, introduced the saxophone to South African dignitaries, most of whom were Dutch, and sold the horn to music-loving merchant seamen on their way to the Far East.3 After moving back to Holland for a few years, he took a job in London as a saxophonist in a sixty-two-piece orchestra. He then joined the Parepa Rosa Opera Company, which brought him to America, where, starting in 1873, he found fame as the Saxophone King, first with the hugely popular Patrick Gilmore band, the country’s premier concert band, which had just introduced a saxophone quartet to its ensemble, and later as a soloist. Over the course of his career, Lefebre transcribed about a hundred well-known pieces for solo saxophone and quartet and performed thousands of times across America and Canada.
Thanks to French military bands, which accompanied troops wherever they were posted, saxophones premiered in Mexico in the early 1860s and quickly migrated into new territory. In fact, the first saxophonist to take up residence in New Orleans is thought to have been a Mexican, Florencio Ramos, a former member of the Eighth Cavalry Mexican Band, which played at the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans in 1884 and broke up soon thereafter. Many of the defectors became members of the city’s first jazz generation and had a strong south-of-the-border influence on the emerging polyglot idiom. (For instance, pizzicato, the plucking method of playing the string bass, had been incorporated into popular music by Mexicans, and it became the accepted technique for jazz bassists. And the popular “Sobre las Olas” [Over the Waves] by Juventino Rosas was adopted as a standard in New Orleans jazz performances, even though it was a waltz.) By the turn of the century, the saxophone could be heard in every urban center in America. It was strategically positioned to play a leading role in the radical new musical idioms to come.
Near the end of his life, which sadly guttered out in 1894, Adolphe Sax launched a final attack against his rivals, publishing an apologia of his life in the journal Le Musique de Familles. Alternately despondent and blustering, the inventor felt it necessary to provide a last account of the many injustices he had suffered at the hands of his litigious and murderous enemies, many of whom were now dead. Appealing to the public, “this great avenger of just causes … from whom a sympathetic gesture has often sufficed to hasten justice too slow in coming,” Sax boasted that “before me, I am proud to say, the musical instrument industry was nothing, or next to nothing, in France. I created this industry; I carried it to an unrivaled height: I developed the legions of workers and musicians, and it is above all my counterfeiters who have profited from my work.” Despite being “blessed by the moral satisfaction my work has brought me,” he admitted to having been brought low by “the scandalous role of the counterfeiters united against me, who have had sufficient means—as the debates have always proven—to ruin me.” He concluded his appel au publique by begging the government for a regular stipend so that he would be able to “give myself a few hours of peace in a life consumed by trouble.” Impoverished and depressed, the inventor whose grandiose visions had motivated him for a lifetime now wished only to be freed of the worry about where his next meal would come from.
It was a sad ending for a proud man who, despite all the legal hassles, bankruptcies, and attacks on his character and body, somehow remained a prolific producer of brass instruments and improved the design of virtually every woodwind in use today. Between 1843 and 1860, he and his workers made more than 18,000 pieces, 945 of which were saxophones.4 In 1851 alone he exhibited eighty-five instruments at the Industrial Exhibition of London. By then his saxophone family had grown to include five members—bass, baritone, tenor, alto, and soprano. Although he had fabricated prototypes of a sopranino and a contrabass, they never made it into production.5 Sax apparently decided that the need for the lower orchestral bass voices was met by deep saxhorns and tubas and by the new sarrusophone, essentially a bass saxophone with a double reed. The instrument was developed in 1854 by Pierre Louis Gautrot, a lifelong enemy of Sax, whom Sax, characteristically, sued for patent infringement.
Sax’s creative talents transcended instrument making. By 1894, the year of his death, when he was living off the small pension he had been granted after his appel au publique and laboring as a stage manager at the Paris Opera House, he had been granted thirty-five patents. Some had practical applications, some were spectacular fantasies, and the rest appeared to be the musings of a deranged mind. He invented devices to reflect and correct sound. Intrigued by the parabola—the parabolic shape of the saxophone bore was the most distinctive feature of Sax’s patent application—he envisioned parabolic music halls that offered a perfect acoustical experience to every member of the audience. He designed a device that achieved “an improvement of the whistle-signal of railway engines.” He also invented the Goudronnier Sax, a fumigation box that infused the air of a room with the scent of tar or antiseptics, several of which were ordered by Louis Pasteur.
Sax designed a number of hybrid instruments and was often mocked in cartoons for the huge size of his musical inventions. The ribbing only motivated him to magnify his already grandiose visions. He threatened to design an instrument “with the diameter of the Colonne de Juillet [the bronze column on the place de la Bastille],” which he planned to call the Saxontonnerre (Sax-thunder). He drew up plans for a giant organ, to be erected on a hillside and powered by a locomotive steam engine, that he could use to play the music of Meyerbeer for all of Paris. The Revue Gazette Musicale de Paris said the instrument was “operated by vibrating blades, submitted to a pressure of four or five atmospheres. The blades are really huge steel bars, vibrating under high pressure.” Sax’s friend, Berlioz, deploying the era’s Romantic hyperbole, declared that the monstrosity would “sing from the top of the highest towers the joys and the sorrows of a metropolis, immersing the whole populace in its harmonies.”
In one of his apocalyptic moods, Sax conceived of a giant mortar bullet, eleven yards wide and weighing 550 tons, that could level an entire city. An admirer promised that the missile would “tear apart, smash entire walls, ruin fortifications, explode mines, blow up powerhouses—in a word, exert an irresistible devastation in a wide range, not to mention the horrible fright this explosion would provoke.”
It’s likely that when dreaming up the device that would launch this monstrous agent of destruction, which he called the Saxocannon, the eccentric inventor kept his lifelong antagonists, the Association of United Instrument Makers, firmly in his imaginary sights.
THE DEVIL’S HORN. Copyright © 2005 by Michael Segell. All rights reserved. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010
Meet the Author
Michael Segell is an editor at the Daily News, an amateur percussionist and saxophone player, and a professional music lover. He lives with his wife and children in New York City and Long Eddy, New York.
Michael Segell's writing has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, and Esquire, where he wrote the popular column "The Male Mind" for three years. He has received two National Magazine Award nominations for his work.
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